23 June 2009

Making New Donald Duck Adventures: Tamers of Nonhuman Threats! (Part One)

I've spoken much on this blog about favorite creations of the past—but as a comics editor and writer, I've personally had the honor and privilege of working with some stellar creators in the present. One of my most exciting experiences began in the summer of 1999 at an Egmont Creative task force meeting, where I learned about a project provisionally called "Goosebusters."

What: A strange (in the good sense) branded series starring Donald and Cousin Fethry as paranormal investigators/"men in black"/secret agents.

Egmont is a Denmark-based Disney licensee. Every year they produce several thousand pages of Disney comics stories, written and drawn by talents around the world. From 1997 to 2004, I was part of the Egmont editorial team, supervising some of these writers and artists under Editor-In-Chief Anna Maria Vind and Creative Director Byron Erickson. My "unit," as I called it—I was the only editor to use animation studio terminology!—included talents such as Stefan Petrucha, Sarah Kinney, and Don Markstein, and we produced more Mickey Mouse, Goofy, and Uncle Scrooge stories than anything else. But there was room to expand. In 1998, for example, I was on hand for the revival of Fethry Duck.

Story Type: Comedy/Adventure (predominately a lot of fantasy).

Fethry, as past readers of this blog will know, is Donald's obsessively nerdy cousin. In classic 1960s comics created by Dick Kinney and Al Hubbard (example from "Weaving and Ducking" [1964], right), this geek gained fame through his highly unique mix of creativity, selflessness, and unwitting thoughtlessness. But it was a hard balance to pull off just right. By the late 1970s, many Fethry stories featured a distorted duck, often shown as dumb and egotistical. In 1992, Egmont ceased using the character, determining that this version was more unpleasant than funny. A few years later, though, the question came up: could the original, more interesting Fethry be brought back?

The Purpose of the Series: In general, to take advantage of ongoing reader interest in [science fiction] stories.

As a longtime aficionado of the Kinney-Hubbard stories, I wanted to give this a try. With my writer friend, Fethry expert Lars Jensen (left)—then working under a different editor—I created a character guide on the "classic" Fethry; scripted a few short stories myself, then handed the character over to writers in my unit. Still, the results were only three- to six-page tales at first; and working with my then-regular team, I could not involve Lars at the time. I wanted to produce more ambitious Fethry projects and see Lars get a crack at them, too.

Supporting Characters: The Head (maybe a literal alien head) of a secret non-specific-government organization, and maybe other members of this organization. The main Disney Duck characters have roles only as appropriate to individual stories.

Which brings us back to that 1999 editors' meeting. While we Egmonters decided on many of the themes for our story production from scratch, this time our publishers had given us some rough plotlines upon which they wished to see new ongoing story subseries—or "branded series"—based. One was provisionally titled "Computer Kids": tales about Donald's nephews in a computer club. One was called "Football": Mickey's nephews, Morty and Ferdie, were to join a soccer team. And then there was "Goosebusters," the series I volunteered to edit. Publishers wanted to capitalize on the popularity of science-fiction media—Ghostbusters, Men in Black, Goosebumps, The X-Files—and show Donald and Fethry as part of a huge, secret monster-, ghost-, and alien-hunting organization.

The Tone of the Series: The key word is "fun", but not camp... Donald might know what a loon Fethry is sometimes, and the Head might get ulcers from Fethry’s doings (if he had a stomach), but the point is not to do stories in which the only purpose is to point to Fethry and laugh at what a moron he is. This same point is also true of Donald...

Adventure stories featuring Fethry? Wak! I was there. Then again—wait a minute. Donald is a duck bent on self-preservation. And Fethry drives Donald crazy, however unknowingly. Now Donald was willingly going to subject himself to a dangerous monster-fighting job... with Fethry as his partner? Making this believable would be part of the assignment, just like making any comic book plotline relatively convincing. I needed to work with a writer who knew Fethry well and was up for a challenge! It was time to get Lars Jensen—and though he didn't usually work for me, I received special permission to work with him now. Then it came time to pick an artist; who better than Lars' fellow Dane Flemming Andersen (above), whose wild, bouncy linework struck me as perfect for the lunacy of Donald-Fethry teamups. With my creative team established, then, it was soon time for writer, artist and editor to spend a week away from the Egmont office and our regular lives, brainstorming each day from morning to night...

Imagine: There’s a secret government agency that’s a combination of ghostbusters/alien-sitters and or -fighters/paranormal investigators. And imagine that, through a twisted string of circumstances, the Head of this agency gets the idea that Cousin Fethry is an expert in the field. And imagine that Fethry gets so enamored by the Head’s recruitment pitch that he accepts. Further imagine, that Fethry somehow manages to talk Donald into joining him as his partner. The result of all this imagining? All hell breaks loose!

This last paragraph marked the heart of the document I've been excerpting: the "Goosebusters" assignment sheet that Flemming, Lars, and I were given by Byron Erickson. It reflected a mixture of wishes and decisions from Byron, Maria, Egmont management, and the affiliate publishers. Now we three creators got to spend a week holed up in Copenhagen's Hotel Neptun, enjoying the perk of all the food we could eat at any restaurant I chose. The price of these luxuries? We were sworn to translate our assignment into a series—and come back with a complete series bible by the Monday following!

It was going to be fun, yet a little stressful—handling the writing and editing side, Lars and I almost felt like we were characters in a slightly tense comic book story, ourselves. And well, what do you know? After less than a day at Hotel Neptun, our tension became Donald's own. Who gets stuck with all the bad luck? Who feels like a loser compared to successful Uncle Scrooge? Who's always being run out of town due to crises he's caused—but can't afford to clean up? No one but Donald Duck, of course (whose team headgear I tried to envision in crude thumbnails, above left). So what if joining the "Goosebusters" became the answer to these problems? The flip side of the danger in being a secret agent, after all, is the feeling of being a winner when a mission goes right; the feeling of bravado when you get to handle cool secret agent gear. And if being a monster fighter also paid really, really well, Donald would have no choice but to lean on "Goosebuster" missions after his domestic Duckburg disasters caused expensive trouble.

Suddenly Donald had a reason to be a "Goosebuster"! Lars compared it to making a sick patient's body accept a complex medicine; sometimes medicines B and C are required to make medicine A go down. But do it right, and the result is health; or in this case, healthy logic. On a good day, Donald could actually enjoy his secret agent job. On a bad day, Donald would still be forced to stick with it—kvetching all the way.

And Fethry? Well, what if the Head was, in fact, halfway right about Fethry's being "an expert in the [paranormal] field"? A cryptid-obsessed Fethry might be too eccentric for a real scholar, but he could believably learn enough to be helpful to missions in spite of himself. Maybe Donald could use this...

Wow! While Lars and I were figuring those relationships out, Flemming was drawing! The images you're seeing show some of the first results this master came up with—an improved version of Donald's headgear and uniform, an elaborate interior view of what a secret government agency might look like, and then a slick lady "Goosebuster" agent. This was the heyday of early video game action heroines like Lara Croft, Jill Valentine, and Claire Redfield, so we all felt like sourcing that same trope... but with a twist. Imagine Lara, Jill, or Claire ten years further on in their lives, when the thrill of adventure has been replaced by grim world-weariness. What if such a jaded action heroine were Donald's trainer? We'd have a clash of titans! In that spirit, Lars called our frazzled senior agent Kolik, "a name that sounded rock-hard... like you could bruise yourself on it." It also sounded like colic—a kind of pain, just like she and Donald would give each other when they argued! The character first called Anya Kolik became Katrina, then Brandy, then finally Katrina again. Lars and I loved the great helmet Flemming created for her, too, though even today we haven't yet explained why she's the only agent who wears one—or how exactly it hides her huge mop of hair. Suction?

The gadgetry of "Goosebusters" quickly went beyond Kolik's helmet. Soon Lars and Flemming were devising futuristic flying scooters and the "weirdness radar," with which paranormal activity could be detected from afar. We decided agents could store their gadgets in special armbands that seemed to compress the gadgets down to a small size. But this goofy hi-tech came with problems—the "armband compressors," as we called them, almost never seemed to contain everything a mission called for. I may have been the first to sketch an armband compressor (above left), but Flemming (above right) outdid me for believability! I'm a writer; he's an artist.

Speaking of believability, you'll recollect that we were asked to make the series' characters sympathetic, not parodic or silly ("...[avoid] stories in which the only purpose is to point to Fethry and laugh..."). And this led to an important question regarding our opening setup. If we were to take the characters' situations seriously, then the "Goosebusters" had to treat their missions seriously. So how seriously could the Head ever take nerdy Fethry? Could the Head believably become convinced on his own that Fethry was an expert paranormalist, or did Fethry have extra aid or circumstances on his side? An early suggestion from Lars, preserved in my notes, plumped for the latter:
Either Fethry or Donald works for Scrooge [on a project]; somehow [the nature of the project means that] they either work opposite the Goosebuster organization or against them. At the end of the story, Scrooge manages to pass them onto the organization. They’ve caused so much destruction for the Goosebusters that the Goosebusters make them work it off, hence their continued employment.
Nope... wouldn't work. Editor Dave and Writer Lars hashed it out: after being introduced to the "Goosebusters" as visibly destructive characters, the Ducks weren't realistically very likely to be employed as agents—an obviously sensitive position—to work off their debts. And how much Scrooge/"Goosebusters" contact could take place without Scrooge learning the nature of their work—and thus becoming permanently aware of his nephews' "Goosebuster" identities? We'd been asked to create a secret agency; if other Ducks learned about it, the consequences could be serious (sketch from Lars, above right; no, not that serious).

We needed a new way for the circumstances to favor Fethry's—and, eventually, Donald's—hiring as secret agents. Version two sounded significantly better:
Night at Fethry’s; he’s watching monster movies or reading books and going on about his obsession. Shadowy figures (emissaries of the [Head]) have [a] weirdness radar that has led them there. Fethry is talking out loud about how he’d like to get Donald involved. "Are you interested in the paranormal?" comes a voice. "Yes!" gushes Fethry. [The next day we find Fethry] bursting in on Donald. Donald hears his pitch, and after first rejecting it, decides to go along—cynically saying "Great, I'll bust one ghost with [you]"; ghosts don't really exist, Donald thinks, so he isn't afraid at all.
Still a problem here, though; Fethry seemed to be the focus character, sidelining the more sympathetic Donald. There had to be a way to get Donald into this setup from the start. Third time was the charm...
In a moment of weakness, Donald has reluctantly joined Fethry for a night of movies about Fethry’s latest kick: the paranormal. After one too many installments of “The Meatloaf That Ate Vegas"... a sickened Donald pushes off for home, but overenthusiastic Fethry will not be stopped. Even alone, he continues... obsessing about his latest fad. It’s now that outside Fethry’s home, we see two shadowy figures passing by... talking to Agent Kolik on the phone [though] we won't see Kolik at all... as yet; the [agents] are in the neighborhood to watch Fethry and dialogue reveals they (or their organization) has done so from a distance for a while... "I want to investigate the paranormal!” Fethry says to no one in particular. “And I wish Cousin Donald could join me, because it's so obvious he wants to!" BANG! Next day Donald is grabbed from his garden (or wherever)...
Bingo. Rather than be recruited directly by the level-headed Head, Fethry could instead intrigue two low-level agents who would help make the case to the Head for him. Should Fethry (and by extension, Donald) then fail to live up to expectations, those other agents would take the brunt of the blame—and never forget it. In later stories, they could even become resentful rivals on the force! At first, the recruiters-turned-rivals were simply called "the two agents" or "two guys" in our notes. They spent awhile as Yin and Yang before crystallizing as Jackson and Finch, a steely-eyed Puritan and his oafish cool-dude partner. While not incompetent, Jackson and Finch are average, imperfect, and insecure enough to feel threatened by their hirees; Lars once accurately stated that "Jackson and Finch would probably be the Donald and Fethry of the group if Donald and Fethry were not there." With Donald and Fethry there, the results were dynamite!

Hmm... dynamite. As noted on our assignment sheet, the name "Goosebusters" had always been just a provisional name for our secret agency. Lars noted that despite being an obvious Disney play on ghostbusters, it "would only be believable in the context of the series if our heroes were constantly fighting Gus Goose." Over racks of ribs at Copenhagen's Hard Rock Cafe on January 19, 2000, Donald's and Fethry's paranormalist employer became TNT—initially "Terror Neutralization Taskforce" and finally Tamers of Nonhuman Threats.

I'm glad we didn't go with my earlier (joking) suggestion, "Monster Butchers." We wouldn't have been allowed to kill them off, anyway.

Hey, it's the end of the post but we're not through yet. I'll return to TNT soon to tell about how more new characters were created; how the Head got a body; and how a highly reluctant Donald got sent on his first few missions.

19 June 2009

Allwine Does Gottfredson: A Tribute

Wayne Allwine will be missed.

I'm not the first to say so. In fact, my blog must be about the five-hundredth cartoon blog to spread the news, insofar as Disney's longtime Mickey Mouse voice artist actually passed away several weeks ago. But I'm going to regret Allwine's loss not just for what he did, but what he could—fate permitting—have done so much more of, because he was so incredibly right for it.

Allwine's Mickey Mouse was featured most often in the context of light entertainment—most often aimed specifically at kids. From his first work in the New Mickey Mouse Club (1977) through numerous sing-along records and the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse TV series (2006-present), Allwine typically portrayed a mouse who was primarily a substitute parent for toddlers; a bubbly, gently authoritative man-child, but little more. This Mickey was rarely depressed or conflicted, nor did he have reason to be. On the other hand, I can't blame Allwine for having delivered the kind of host character that preschool entertainment often demands. He was asked to do it, and he was fine at that.

It's just that Mickey can be more than that character. Disney comics fans know that in the pages of four-color funnies, Mickey is a star aimed at all ages; not just children. Instead of an adult, establishment role model, the best comics portray "a mouse against the world": a stubbornly optimistic, imperfect but determined youth trying to prove himself in competitive and downright dangerous situations and surroundings. And in funny business—because an earnest, struggling underdog can get into awfully embarrassing scrapes, too.

This is the Mickey developed first by Floyd Gottfredson in the 1930s dailies; the Mickey who battled Pegleg Pete on fighter planes and escaped from the Phantom Blot's deathtraps. And tried to get out of modeling dresses for Minnie, "doggone th' luck!"

In Runaway Brain (1995) and the Mouseworks and House of Mouse series (1999-2003), as well as its Three Musketeers companion film (2004), Allwine finally got precious chances to portray something close to this version of Mickey. While every project had its arguable drawbacks—these obviously weren't golden age cartoons—we did get to see Mickey the smart aleck again; Mickey the underdog; even Mickey the dramatist, perhaps more than in any animated incarnation. And Allwine delivered the voicework in a way that, I think, Jimmy MacDonald never could.

Let me show you what I'm talking about with a little "best-of" compilation that I've put together. You'll have to put up with sometimes-crude TV animation to enjoy the Allwine acting, but maybe if I throw the Phantom Blot into the mix...

Ironically, Mickey Foils the Phantom Blot (1999) was also the exception that proved the rule. As enjoyable as aspects of Mouseworks and Three Musketeers were, the best opportunity never materialized: there was never, during Allwine's lifetime, a real series of long-form Mickey adventure cartoons made, nor was a chance taken to actually adapt any comics characters or environments beyond the Blot and—briefly—the relatively unimportant Chief O'Hara. We can only imagine, most of the time, how well Allwine's Mickey would fit into the full environment of the comics character.

Luckily, we don't have to imagine all the time, thanks to a few rather uncommon Allwine performances I'm pleased to share. In the mid-1990s, Disney mounted a promotional campaign called "The Perils of Mickey," consisting of merchandise based on several classic Gottfredson comics adventures. Was a plan ever made to expand this push into animation? I don't know, but I'm certain that at some point, it expanded into recordings. An abbreviated version of Gottfredson's classic "Blaggard Castle" (1932), pitting Mickey and Horace Horsecollar against Professors Ecks, Doublex, and Triplex, was recorded as a Disney "storyteller album" with Allwine and others in the roles. It doesn't seem ever to have been released that way, but one can find it on ITunes and Amazon now—minus the "Perils" branding. In the spirit of fair use (sorry, you'll have to buy the whole thing if you want it!), here's a little excerpt, complete with the corresponding Gottfredson strips for comparison:

"Blaggard Castle" wasn't the only time Allwine would record Gottfredson, either. In 1938, Western Publishing issued a series of Disney storybooks with blandly generic titles—The Story of Mickey Mouse, The Story of Dippy the Goof, and so forth—containing Big Little Book-like retellings of Gottfredson Sunday gag pages. In 1996, Applewood Press reprinted these books with accompanying CDs, each containing recorded versions of the books' texts with then-current Disney voice actors in the roles. Here's Ted Osborne's and Floyd Gottfredson's Mickey Mouse Sunday page for November 29, 1936...

...and here's Allwine's reenactment. To make it more like the Sunday page and less like the book, I've eliminated the narration that originally bridged the dialogue...

(Oh, okay. You want to hear the narration, too? Here's the complete version, with Horace's voice actor narrating as Horace. I'm not sure it's the more recent Bill Farmer here, but I could be wrong...)

Let's hear it for Wayne Allwine—a man who didn't live in the golden age of animation, but who was capable of a wonderful golden age Mickey Mouse. (And if any of my readers knows more of the backstory behind the "Blaggard Castle" recording, I'd be grateful for a scoop.)

11 June 2009

Tho-MAS! Come Up and See Some Rarities Sometime (Hic!)

Researchers revel in the search for classic cartoons' original titles. Almost every major studio reissued its cartoons years after their creation; sometimes to theatres, other times to TV. And almost every major studio retitled its cartoons for the purpose, drafting new and more modern opening and closing titles.

Often these new titles weren't as imaginative in style as the old. Sometimes they swapped the original cartoons' episode-specific graphics for a tedious sameness. Other times they simply lacked the period charm that the originals had had.

But often there was no going back. Many studios, including Disney, Warner, and MGM misplaced or completely lost numerous original title sequences after replacing them. Often the originals were snipped off the negatives and thrown away. Other times they were simply reshelved until it was difficult to find them. In the case of MGM in particular, original versions of the shorts were saved—but then a studio fire destroyed the elements.

Luckily, enough searching, hunting, and pecking can bring refugee copies of the originals to light. At a collection I recently visited, I met up with a few rare Tom and Jerry stragglers. The condition on some was only fair, but at least now we can see a little more of them than we usually do.

The Midnight Snack (1941) was the second Tom and Jerry short, and the first to call the characters by their well-known names. A similar title sequence survives on The Night Before Christmas (also 1941), but we didn't know how it looked on the first cartoon to feature it. Now we see that it shared the same brilliant blue style as the basic MGM cartoon titles of the period:

(This may have been the only time the proper episode title appeared on the Tom and Jerry card. It doesn't happen in The Night Before Christmas—nor in Fraidy Cat [1942], a print of which I also saw and which combines the Tom and Jerry card above with the Fraidy Cat title that we still see today.)

Jumping ahead a year we find Puss 'n' Toots (1942), Tom's first ill-fated love story. The print I saw was not complete, but we do get a differently-colored version of the Tom and Jerry intro card and an era-appropriate end title.

Moving forward again we have Mouse Trouble (1944). The Tom and Jerry intro card here is in fact one we're used to seeing, though the screengrab that circulates today survived only on a single nitrate frame; this is the first time I'd seen it on an actual print. The Mouse Trouble-specific title and credits cards themselves are also colored and designed differently than on the reissue. Until we find more originals, a lot of such differences may be lost to the ages.

There's still at least one early Tom and Jerry intro card that I've never seen on a print; you can see it below in its surviving pencil sketch, as presented years ago on the Cartoon Network website. I'm guessing this could have been used in 1943, and maybe one day we'll see; perhaps there are more rarities out there?

(Speaking of rarities, some of you may wonder whether the several Tom and Jerrys that I viewed, like some other early MGM cartoons, included gags that were tweaked or altered for their reissues. I didn't see any, nor do the copyright synopses indicate any.)

Update, June 14: Thanks to my accidentally getting my screengrabs crossed, the "Supervised By" card shown here for The Midnight Snack was actually the one for Fraidy Cat. Vdubdavid at the Termite Terrace Trading Post noticed the incorrect production number—thanks! I've got the correct Midnight Snack card up now, and will repost the Fraidy Cat version later.

Link, June 15: Thad has posted actual footage of another MGM rarity with original titles: Avery's Wild and Woolfy (1945). This cartoon was altered for reissue, and we can now get a look at the first release print in action. Nice job.

Update, October 20: O-W-T out! The Tom and Jerry intro card I showed for Mouse Trouble here was really from The Zoot Cat (1944). Now I've fixed it—identical card design, but very different looking prints, and the Zoot Cat card is now seen only where it belongs. Thanks, Gabriel Katikos.

06 June 2009

Ub Iwerks' Rep: From Flip to Flop

Why did Ub Iwerks leave Walt Disney's employ in January 1930? For leave he did, and fast; enticed by an offer that, according to Michael Barrier and John Kenworthy, Iwerks at first didn't realize was masterminded by Pat Powers, Disney's own distributor.
Conflict with Walt himself is thought of as the main reason for the split, with the suggestion that Walt took Ub's talent for granted. But another reason has been leveled, too. At the same time that Iwerks got bad vibes from his longtime friend and employer, he is also said to have received a growing number of good vibes, plaudits, and credits from voices outside the studio. This external praise, as much as any internal strife, may have convinced Ub that departure was in his best interest. Once he made that departure, the praise continued quite strongly for a time—seemingly validating Iwerks' action.

Most of us haven't seen actual examples of this praise before, but today I'm presenting two for your reading pleasure. The first example, from Germany's Reichsfilmblatt in 1930, was reprinted in Storm and Dre├čler's superb Im Reiche der Micky Maus (1991). Coming on the cusp of Iwerks' independence, this early announcement of his solo productions explains that
Following the exemplary success of capricious little Mickey Mouse, a new star has now turned up in sound film heaven: Flip the Frog. Again it is Ub Iwerks, the ingenious creator and artist of Mickey, who has taken a great hop forward. His Flip is far more capable than the spindly mouse of mimicking and mocking the posturing and fussing of humanity...
Yet a better, if briefer, clue to the admiration Iwerks received came months earlier in fall 1929—in an item I don't think has ever been reprinted. When Columbia Pictures—again through Pat Powers—first contracted to release Disney's Silly Symphonies, its four-page "press sheet" was remarkably frank about how at least certain parties viewed the Disney/Iwerks relationship. "Walt Disney is head of the studio," Columbia's corporate voice explains, "but the artist who perfects the details is named 'Ub' Iwerks. He is assisted by a staff of 'animators' [sic], who follow his sketches and continuity..."
Reality notwithstanding—the same presskit calls "Oswald the Cat" an earlier Disney creation and scrupulously avoids mentioning Mickey, a non-Columbia property until 1930—the implication could not be more clear: Disney was the businessman, Iwerks the artiste and director. The back page's biography of Disney, calling him a "child of fate," certainly lavishes Walt with purple prose, yet still cannot walk back that first impression.

(Momentary break to discuss the poster art illustrated in Columbia's presskit: I've seen these one-sheets before, but never any for El Terrible Toreador (1929) until now. The poster and presskit call the film The [sic] Terrible Toreador, but that's actually a mistake; though the original titles are not on DVD, collectors possess them—see image at left—and they carry the commonly accepted El at title's start.)

Only some time after Iwerks' split did the first impression begin to recede. Later in 1930, another German article was entitled "The True Creator of the Mickey Mouse Films." It contended that
The creator of the now world-famous Mickey Mouse is the American film producer Walt Disney. The original concepts for Mickey and his inamorata Minnie stem from him, as do all the ideas for the Mickey Mouse film treatments. The artist Ub Iwerks, falsely credited as the father of the Mickey Mouse films, was initially an employee of Walt Disney. He has long since been expelled from the Disney firm.
From hero to pariah overnight. What a crazy trip.